A Great Road Trip – Winterdance Dogsledding Tours

A few weeks ago, at the insistance of a friend, I reached out to Tanya McCready at Winterdance Dogsled Tours to see if there was still time to get in a dogsled tour on on her 5,000+ acres of backwoods trails near Haliburton, Ontario, just south of Algonquin Park. I knew my old friend Sarah Lemay, who runs Toronto’s only breastfeeding boutique Evymama, would be up for just this kind of adventure.

With some quick-thinking related to the acquisition of car seats, we were also able to pull her two charming kids, Remy and Tayla, out of school to join us. You can check out the video below to see what we discovered. It wasn’t what either of us expected…in a really great way.

The Basics of Dogsledding

Our trip up to Winterdance took about three hours with a couple of breaks along the way. Upon our arrival our guide Mike gave us the full run down. In essence, dogsledding is less about the sled and more about the dogs. Knowing how to read their signals is key, along with a communicating to them through controls on the sled. For the uphill portions of the trail, we had to jump off the sled and walk alongside, and as we coasted downhill, heavy use of the brake kept the lines taught and the dogs from getting hit by the sled. We headed out onto the trail with Mike’s training, knowing that it would all make sense in short order – and it did.

The dogs would slow down and look back at us if we ever slacked off pushing on the harder sections. They are driven to be constantly moving forward, so we also had to use the brake to keep them from running right into the team in front of us. But developing these skills and understanding what the dogs were communicating to us was all part of the fun of the first half  of our tour. Once we got the hang of it, we could really start to enjoy the scenery and the camradie with the team.

After and hour or two out on the trail, we crossed a lake and got an sense of how far from the city we truly were. Cliffs with massive turquoise icesheets covering their soney faces rose on either side of us, and the dead silence of this pristine and isolated part of the world began to work it’s magic on our city-tired souls. Sarah’s father had always been described to me as a modern-day coureur des bois, and I imagined that this was the kind of experience that people who were deeply connected with nature had. The early explorers of Canada were in touch with the land and connected to their animals in such an inate way that they could go weeks and months in the vast wilderness without seeing another human and be perfectly at ease. Our guide was kind enough to also prepare a lunch for us on the shore of the lake, and we had delicious hamburgers and hotdogs in front of a crackling fire before finishing the last leg of our tour, which saw us speed down a few hills and past other visitors just at the start of their own adventures.

Things You Need to Know

  • Dogsledding tours at Winterdance are suitable for children and adults.
  • The tour is very safe and the sleds don’t go much faster than 20km/h on the downhill sections.
  • The dogs will be barking before the sleds embark on their tour – this is normal and is just to show their excitement.
  • Tours can be a couple hours, a half or a full day – call to confirm availability.

As a snowmobiler, I’d half-expected a fast-paced, competative race through the forest (and had already strategized on how to keep ahead of Sarah, Remy and Tayla.) But this is not what Winterdance’s dogsled tours are really about. What I did find was an incredibly peaceful escape from the city. Compared to my snowmobile trip a week later in Muskoka, this was serene, connected and left me feeling recharged.

For more information on all kinds of winter, summer, spring and fall outdoors activities in beautiful Ontario, please visit www.OntarioOutdoor.com.

Many thanks to Mike McLaughlin of CityBird Films for creating this video of our break from city life.

Escape the 400s – A New Way to Get Off The Highways

Find some new roads to get you off the 400 series highways. A great series for motorcyclists!

Sweet Peeks of the Week #9 Farewell!

From July 27th to July 31th 2012

Photos by Alexandra Sawicki

Farewell friends and followers. Hopefully we will all meet again for another fun ride!

Day 60 – Take Me Home, Country Roads…

The Brothers Jacobs

Our last full day of the road trip began with breakfast at the Ash Grove Inn in Barry’s Bay, right down the road from the Pinewood. Overlooking Kamaniskeg Lake, the restaurant serves not only hotel guests but local folks as well.

A beautiful quiet drive brought us to vibrant little Maynooth, where we were sad to discover the Sun Run Café was closed on Mondays. We made up for it though by spending a good long while perusing the overflowing shelves of the Old Peterson Road Gallery & Antiques and coming away with quite a few little treasures.

The historic Peterson Road, one of the best riding roads in Southern Ontario, begins in Maynooth. The long sweeping tree-lined curves meet the sparkling blue waves of Baptiste Lake and continues as Elephant Lake Road for another 15km to the small town of Harcourt. We’d thought the two roads would be the last of the great riding on the trip, but the beautiful new discovery of Regional Road 48/Dyno Road between highways 118 and 28 added another five kilometres of sweet, low, tight little bends, a sun-dappled green canopy overhead and tucked right up to the pavement, ending right at Silent Lake Provincial Park. We almost turned around and did it again, but we were already late for our rendez-vous with Daniel Jacobs of Bare Knuckle Records – the composer of much of the music for the Road Show.

At Dan’s cozy little studio on a quiet road in Peterborough, the Road Trip Band recorded our very own song, a Northern Ontario-themed cover of John Denver’s classic, Take Me Home, Country Roads. Figuring out the lyrics brought about a rapid-fire reminiscence of all of the great places we’d visited, the good food we’d eaten, and all the fun we’d had. With each take, and each reminiscence, it became necessary to include an additional verse. Although afterwards we were devastated to realize we’d forgotten to include the experience we’d rhapsodized about so many times – Alexe even dreamed of it one night – the spectacular, one of a kind, delectable poutine at Elk Lake Eco-Resort with the inimitable Pam Hamel. If anything, it deserves its own verse.

Dan invited us over to his backyard for a picnic of a few racks of the amazing smoked ribs from Muddy’s Pit BBQ in Keene. Each side is smoked for 24 hours, presided over by the owner himself. It was a perfectly messy and satisfying finale to all the great eating we’ve done on this trip, and there couldn’t have been better dinner companions than Dan and his lovely lady Emma.

Stuffed to the brim, we headed home to the Best Western Otanabee on the river for our last night of sharing hotel rooms!

Tomorrow – The last haul south…

Photos by Alexandra Sawicki

Day 59 – Peace in the Valley

We began our descent out of Northern Ontario with a late morning jaunt down highway 11 from Mattawa to Pembroke, where we hooked up with Ottawa Valley Tourism’s Melissa Marquart for an afternoon adventure in the land of the rushing rivers.

After a late lunch at the Pembroke Best Western, we headed west to check out the pretty little town of Wilno, the first Polish settlement in Ontario. We had been through the area in early June, but it’s always nice to have a local guide to let you in on all the little secret gems, and she took us to some great little spots we never would have discovered otherwise.

On the way to our evening accommodation, the Pinewood Inn in Barry’s Bay, Melissa took us to the lookout over Wilno, where from a low shady bluff the green hills roll away down the valley. A plaque commemorates the long Polish history and unique culture of the community.

We whiled away the heat of the afternoon swimming in Kamaniskeg Lake in Barry’s Bay, strolling in our bathing suits and towel sarongs along a grassy path down the hill right behind the Pinewood.

But the absolute best part of the day was the surprise that awaited us at the Wilno Tavern. An unpresuming white building tucked up on a rise along the highway with a beautiful folk art mural on the wall, we had passed it by on our first run through town on our way to Bonnechere in June, but it had appeared so quiet and sleepy we didn’t think much of it.

Opening the door we were swept into a bustling mix of local families and tables full of vibrant river rafting guides, everyone lining up for the brimming smorgasbord of traditional (yet uniquely local) Polish fare. Because Wilno was so culturally isolated for most of its history, and the Polish settlers all arrived from one area of Poland, the dialect and food of the Wilno area is quite distinctive.

It’s also totally delicious. For $17.95, we stuffed our faces with gigantic cheese, potato and bacon-filled pierogies with all the fixings, cabbage rolls, pickled whitefish, meatballs, sausages and fried onions, braised red cabbage, mashed potatoes and gravy, salads, and even homemade lemon meringue and rhubarb pies.

The Tavern also hosts open-mike nights on Tuesdays, and the audience crams in from miles around. The Valley is home to several white water rafting companies, and guests and guides alike make the trip to Wilno to dance the night away accompanied by, as one guide put it, ‘lots of Polish beer.’

After dinner we went for a short digestive stroll down the old train tracks, along which the community has developed a beautiful homage to their history with a museum of old log buildings surrounded by flower gardens and the old wayfinding wooden crosses used to mark property boundaries when the area was first settled. The museum was closed for the day, but the photographic history of the area’s churches offered a fascinating glimpse of what life was like in this little Polish town.

Saying goodbye to Melissa, we headed back to Barry’s Bay and the cozy Pinewood Inn.

Tomorrow – Onward to Peterborough on the legendary Peterson & Elephant Lake Roads!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki

CBC Thunder Bay Interviews UNORT!

This morning, Mike did an interview with Adrienne Lamb from the Thunder Bay office of the CBC. Check out the interview here! We talked about highlights from Northwestern Ontario, life on the road, the reason why Northern Ontario is a superior (ha-ha) riding destination and what’s in store for next year! Check it out!

THE LAST EPISODE – The Ultimate Northern Ontario Road Trip

This is it! The last episode of the Ultimate Northern Ontario Road Show. In our final week on the road we snuck down the Bruce Peninsula to visit old friends Barb and Dave Wynd at the Taylor Made Bed and Breakfast in Lions Head where we availed ourselves to the best breakfast on the Bruce. Riding over to Mattawa Voyageur Days to take in performances by the Northern Pikes and George Thorogood, we stopped briefly in North Bay for a night of Karaoke at Partners Billiard and Bowling.

We stopped in with our friend Melissa Marquart from the Ottawa Valley and took in a mind-blowing meal of authentic Polish proportions at the legendary Wilno Tavern. Our last great ride of the trip was on the Peterson and Elephant Lake road, which I enjoyed way too much, and finally we stopped in Peterborough to get a little help from Dan Jacobs, composer of many of the songs heard in the videos, to sign our trip to a close.

It’s been a whirlwind tour and we’ve made so many memories, but sooner or later everyone has to go home. We hope we’ve inspired you to think about exploring the world just outside your back door – Ontario!

Oh, and stick around after the credits, for a special treat. See you on the highway.

Day 58 – The Destroyers destroyed

What. A. Day.

The sight of the glorious thundering waterfalls of the stunning Eau Claire Gorge Conservation Area was a great start to the day. We walked the 500m trail to the Gorge and the Amable du Fond River with Mattawa-Bonfield Tourism’s Jeff McGirr, and hung out in the trees overlooking the rushing water. The Gorge itself has a long First Nations history, and was used by JR Booth’s logging endeavours in the 1870s.

The afternoon was a crazy mash-up of classic Ontario rock and roll, heatstroke, and Thai Kickboxing as we explored the Mattawa Voyageur Days festival around Explorer’s Point on the Mattawa River, where a Hudson’s Bay post was built in 1837. The festival was first held in 1997, and has rocked the Mattawa River the last weekend in July every summer since. The town of 2,000 swells to 7,000 — a sold-out crowd — for the weekend of the festival, concert-goers coming from all over Ontario. We even ran into our Ride Manitoulin Poker Run dealer!

We were lucky enough to catch this year’s Saturday line-up — Platinum Blonde, the Northern Pikes, and the final act of the evening, George Thorogood & the Destroyers! We took in a few rounds at the festival’s kick-boxing tournament, and enjoyed some traditional Mattawa area dinner fare at the Senior’s Centre — Sea Pies! Similar to shepherd’s pie, we were served pies made with beef and pork, but traditionally they can be filled with moose and deer.

After a heat-filled afternoon at the festival grounds and exploring the boisterous streets of the town, it was great to settle back and listen to some old fashioned bluesy rock and roll as the moon rose over the river as George Thorogood & the Destroyers took to the stage.

Tomorrow — We head down river to meet up with Ottawa Valley Tourism’s Melissa Marquart and explore Ontario’s first Polish settlement in Wilno!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki


Day 57 – Crooners and cocktails

I don’t think I can adequately put into words the magic that happened at Partners tonight.

Exhausted by the long haul north on busy freeways and disheartened by the loss of our darling truck Willie Nelson, it was a sorry bunch who arrived at the Comfort Inn in North Bay this afternoon. Not even the air conditioning or operational stereo of the Subaru could cheer us up. We were so long-faced we didn’t even want to eat dinner — but we managed a quick trip to Wendy’s anyway, just this once. When karaoke time rolled around, I think we were all a little more inclined to keep napping instead, but we rallied and clambered into the Subaru to head for the bright lights of downtown North Bay, and the inimitable Partners Billiards and Bowling. Every Friday at 9pm, DJ Geo warms up the microphone for a night of all-request Karaoke hits. Our waitress Tanya said that most nights it’s packed by 11pm and late-comers don’t get to sing, but because of the big weekend party at Mattawa Voyageur Days, it was a little quieter.

There was a rotating roster of about six crooners when we arrived: Fern, with his off-kilter country classics, Vince and his golden voice, Georges Sr and Jr, and the boisterous ladies Tina and Tammy with their rollicking renditions of the hits of revenge and betrayal, and most of Madonna’s mid-80s catalogue. The disco ball sent slivers of blue and orange light shimmying across the floor and the crack of the pool rack breaking across the felt tables gave the place an air of bustle even in its relative emptiness.

Mike started off with a comparatively lacklustre Sweet Caroline to a lukewarm crowd response, and we were a little concerned about the evening’s direction, but then Alexe really warmed them up with her sparkling dance moves to Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. After that, the UNORTs were on fire. The crowd-pleasing harmonies of the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann got the dance floor jumping, Alexe’s rendition of Mitsou’s French pop classic Bye Bye Mon Cowboy brought out the provocative questions, and when Mike channeled Elvis with the heartbreaking Love Me there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We even joined the dance-circle with a little fancy two stepping before making a break for it at last call, when the young turks took to the stage with contemporary pop-punk compositions.

We stopped in at the Metro supermarket on the way home to appease our re-awakened appetites, and nibbled on microwaved Pizza Pockets in the comfort of our hotel room while watching footage of ourselves slay the microphone on Bogdan’s computer.

Tomorrow — More hot times with Rock and Roll at Mattawa Voyageur Days!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki

Day 56 – And then there were none.

This was a very strange day.

After packing up the trailer and hitching it to the truck, I noticed that a front end-loader working on the water main replacement on Taylor Made’s street was making trips to the sand pile at the end of the road, and depositing rather sizeable mounds of sand at 4 foot intervals along the street. Sitting in the cab of the truck, I had a bit of a staring contest with the loader’s driver, trying to discern whether he would inform me first if he was going to drop a mound of sand directly in front of me before he did so. I got the feeling maybe he wouldn’t, so I made my escape before he had the chance, and parked around the corner, walking back across the field for breakfast at the B&B.

After another delicious meal, we set off on our 450km journey from Lion’s Head to North Bay. But after filling up in Ferndale, truck started to behave strangely — no guts when accelerating, which was unusual, and slowing down to almost 30km/hr on uphills.

Around Owen Sound things got really weird, and after playing around with a few things under the hood and test driving sans trailer, we decided to make a break for Toronto on the back roads and switch vehicles for the last few days of the trip. We lunched in the lovely little bluegrass-loving town of Shelburne — country-music capital of Ontario — on corn chowder and thick sandwiches on homemade bread at Jelly Craft Bakery & Cafe, running for cover in a thunder storm.

The rolling hills of highway 10 through Caledon really put the poor old truck to the test, slowing down to 10 or 20km uphill even in low gear. The poor old thing gave up completely as soon as we got into Brampton city limits, and we used Pete’s gift of CAA Plus RV for the second time this trip for a tow back to the Jacobs’ compound in Etobicoke. The 400-series highways were a real shock to our systems after two months of the quiet cruising roads of the North!

Once safely home, we cajoled the old beast into the driveway with the help of half a can (at least) of Quick Start and some serious pushing, then emptied both truck and trailer and repacked all our stuff into Pete and Joelle’s Subaru Outback. We used up their hot water tank several times over with a bunch of showers and a couple loads of laundry, and treated our tastebuds to something unseen in the north — Thai curries! from Lee’s Thai Spring Roll on Lakeshore.

This little moment of luxury was tempered with a sense of great loss and sadness at the strange demise of the pick-up, and we pondered what had happened every so often whenever a new idea occurred to someone. Hopefully she can be revived — but we don’t have time to stick around to watch it happen. We got parties to attend in the north!

Tomorrow — the long haul to North Bay, and Karaoke at Partners Billiards & Bowling!

Photo by Alexandra Sawicki